September 16 – Unnatural History

Today’s factismal: When ice forms on a lake, it is a mineral. When ice forms in your freezer, it isn’t a mineral; it is just ice.

Today is National Collect A Rock Day, so why are we talking about minerals? Because most (but not all) rocks are made out of minerals. And minerals are pretty cool. The first thing that you need to know about minerals is that the stuff in your vitamins aren’t minerals (so much for truth in labeling). That’s because, in order to be a mineral, something has to have a definite chemical composition (e.g., NaCl for halite), defined physical characteristics (e.g., has a density of 3.52 g/cc for diamond), and must be naturally-occurring (i.e., created by Mama Nature). Because the “minerals” in your vitamins lack at least two of those characteristics, they aren’t real minerals even if they are chemically identical to the ones in nature. The same thing is true of ice; only the stuff that forms outside is naturally-occurring and so it is the only ice that is a mineral.

Rhodochrosite is a mineral that was discovered by citizen scientists (My camera)

Rhodochrosite is a mineral that was discovered by citizen scientists
(My camera)

Strangely enough, that last requirement doesn’t hold for rocks; you can have man-made rocks, just as you can have natural ones. Thus, concrete (which isn’t found in nature) is just as much a rock as asphalt (which forms near oil seeps). And, whether we’re talking about rocks or minerals, it turns out that citizen scientists have done an amazing amount of work. Most new minerals are actually discovered by citizen scientists, as are many new types of rock. Cool beans, huh?

Opal isn't a mineral because it doesn't have a regular structure (My camera)

Opal isn’t a mineral because it doesn’t have a regular structure (but it is pretty)
(My camera)

And the contributions of citizen scientists to the study of geology doesn’t stop there. For example, the folks at Geo-Wiki are using citizen scientists to help measure the amount and type of land cover. If you’d like to give them a hand, then hike over to:

September 15 – How Clever!

Today’s factismal: The word engineer comes from the Latin word ingenium which means “cleverness”.

If you want to start an argument at a science conference, as the folks there who the first scientist was. They’ll argue all day and night, complete with glossy photos covered with circles and arrows and with references on the back of each one, trying to decide if Pythagoras was a scientist or just a guy with a bean fetish. But if you ask a group of engineers who the first engineer was, you won’t get an argument. That’s because nobody knows; ever since there have been people, there have been engineers that built things to make the people more comfortable.

The outside of the coliseum at Pompeii (My camera)

The outside of the coliseum at Pompeii; a deceptively simple feat of engineering
(My camera)

The inside of the coliseum at Rome; witht eh wooden seats gone, you can see the involved engineering (My camera)

The inside of the coliseum at Rome; with the wooden seats gone, you can see the involved engineering
(My camera)

Engineers built the hanging gardens of Babylon. Engineers built the pyramids of Egypt. And engineers built the marvel that was Rome, from her majestic aqueducts to her ubiquitous roads to her incredible coliseums. And, in return for all that the engineers gave Rome, the Romans gave engineers a name: ingenium or “clever folks”. And those clever folks have kept giving us marvel after marvel.

Even when the engineering doesn't quite work, it is still miraculous (My camera)

Even when the engineering doesn’t quite work, it is still miraculous
(My camera)

Today is International Engineer Day. So be sure to look at the freeway you drive on or the house you live in or the plane flying overhead and give thanks that those clever folks are still at it. Of course, if you’d like to help create the next generation of clever folks, then there’s a citizen science program for that: Free Geek. These engineers are determined to help make certain that every aspiring engineer has the tools that she or he needs by refurbishing used computer equipment and donating it to low-income families. They started in Portland, Oregon, but have since spread to several other states. To donate or take part, head over to:

September 14 – My Queen!

Today’s factismal: Female cuckoo bumblebees orchestrate coup d’etats in the hives of other bumble bees and then enslave the workers to feed their meglomaniacal horde.

Things get weird in the insect world. Consider the humble bumblebee (or the bumble humblebee if you live in Britain). Though they all get lumped together by the casual observer (i.e., “that small insect with a big stinger that makes honey”), there are actually significant differences between the 250 known species of bumblebee worldwide, about 50 of which live in the USA. Though most bumblebees are about an inch long, the resemblances stops there. They have a bewildering variety of color schemes (usually in alternating strips of black and something bold) and flower preferences (from cactus to roses to pines) and nesting sites (from old bird’s nests to mouse holes to wooden eaves) and temperature range (from near-arctic to warmly tropical).

A bumblebee with loaded corbicula (pollen baskets) (My camera)

A bumblebee with loaded corbicula (pollen baskets)
(My camera)

But perhaps the weirdest thing that bumblebees do is prey on other bumblebees. There is an entire group of bumblebees known as the cuckoo bumblebee. The 29 different species in this group don’t hunt for nectar to make into honey; instead, they look for colonies of other bumblebees to take over in a coup d’etat. What happens is a recently-fertilized female cuckoo bumblebee will seek out a flower with the characteristic pheromone left on it after it has been the meal for a bumblebee. She will then feed at that flower, covering herself with the odor of the plant and the pheromone. Next, she finds the bumblebee nest which is always nearby due to their limited flight range. Using the scent of the flower as a disguise, she sneaks into the nest and sidles up to the queen. With a sudden leap, the cuckoo bumblebee stabs the queen to death after which she emits a pheromone that calms the remaining bumblebees and turns them into her loyal slaves. The usurping cuckoo bumblebee then spends the rest of the season pumping out baby cuckoo bumblebees, which are tended to by the enslaved colony; the cruel kingdom only ends when winter comes, killing all of the bees (sounds like a Game of Thrones episode, doesn’t it?).

Two bumblebees doing their job (My camera)

Two bumblebees doing their job
(My camera)

Of course, that’s not the only weird thing about bumblebees. Another one is that we still don’t know the range of the various species of bumblebee, nor are we sure if their numbers are increasing or not. If you’d like to help answer those questions, then why not join the folks at Project Bumble Bee?

September 12 – Want To Play A Game?

Today’s factismal: It is National Video Game Day. Want to play a game?

There is something that is just plain fun about video games. They may be as simple as creating life or as complex as dodging barrels thrown by giant apes, but they all take us away from the ordinary world for a brief time and let us be someone else. So naturally, there is a day celebrating all of the fun that video games give us.

But video games can do more than entertain; they can also help us research! (You knew I’d find a way to put citizen science in here, didn’t you?) For example, the game Phyllo helps researchers to identify the links between genes and diseases by letting citizen scientists play games with the DNA fragments. All you have to do to win is match the most colored blocks. (For some reason, people are better at this than computers. Take that, HAL9000!) You gain points for matches and lose them for places where the blocks don’t match. If you can do better than the computer, then your score goes up. To give the game a try, head over to:

Today’s factismal: The last death due to smallpox happened thirty-six years ago.

Normally, extinction is not something that we’d celebrate. It means that something is gone forever, taking its unique genetic signature with it. For animals such as the Carolina parakeet and the Western Black Rhinoceros, it is a tragedy. But for diseases such as smallpox and rinderpest, it is a cause for celebration. That’s because smallpox infected millions of people and killed two million each year; even if you were lucky enough to survive, you’d be marked forever by the disease with scars covering much of your body.

The smallpox virus (Image courtesy CDC)

The smallpox virus
(Image courtesy CDC)

Starting in 1950, a concerted effort was made to eradicate smallpox in South America. Vaccines were prepared and injected into people in every country on the continent. The success was so great that a world-wide initiative was proposed in 1958. Within a short time, smallpox was eliminated in North America (you can tell when an American was born by looking at their left shoulder; if they have a scar from the smallpox vaccination, they were born before 1965). By 1975, smallpox was only found in one small part of Africa. And two years later, it was gone from the wild.

But it still lived in laboratories. And that’s where the last victim of smallpox caught it. Janet Parker was a medical photographer documenting the work done at the University of Birmingham Medical School where she was accidentally exposed to the virus. Two weeks later, she became the last person that smallpox would claim. Ever since then, smallpox has been extinct except for two small samples kept in epidemiology labs in the US and Russia as a hedge against any future outbreaks.

Today there is a concerted effort to drive polio into extinction. This disease causes muscles to weaken and atrophy and bones to warp; in extreme cases, it can cause the diaphragm to weaken so much that the person suffocates. If you’d like to help drive this disease into extinction, then make certain that you and your family have had your vaccinations, and join the Global Polio Eradication Initiative:

September 10 – Innocent, I tell ya!

Today’s factismal: DNA evidence can only be used to prove innocence, and never proves guilt.

We’ve all seen it on TV a zillion times by now: some investigator picks up a hair or piece of bubble gum and sends it off to the lab to be analyzed. Ten minutes later, the lab tech comes out and says “It’s a match! We’ve got him!” The only problem with that (as with most science shown on television shows) is that it is completely wrong.

In order to understand why, we need to step back in time some 29 years. A scientist by the name of Alec Jeffreys is trying to understand why some diseases tend to run in families. If a father has heart disease, then his sons are likely to have it as well. If a mother has diabetes, then her children probably will get it too. But why? Jeffreys was convinced that the answer to the question lies in the genetic code, so he made x-ray photographs of crystallized DNA (at the time, that was the only way to do it) that had been donated by his technician’s family. Though he thought that the images were a mess, he did notice that there were some surprising similarities between the images. He quickly realized that he had created a “fingerprint” of the DNA that could be used to tell if a person was related to another one.

His first case involved a boy from Ghana; the father insisted that he wasn’t related to the boy. Jeffreys ran his test and produced similar patterns, showing that the boy and the father were related. In his next case, Jeffreys was able to show that the main suspect in a series of rapes wasn’t related to whomever did the crime but that another suspect was; he had used DNA fingerprinting to show someone’s innocence.

Today the science of DNA fingerprinting has advanced considerably. Instead of looking at x-ray photographs of crystallized DNA, researchers sequence the DNA to identify the actual order of the units that make up the DNA. This test is a huge advance because it is faster, costs less, and uses less sample material than Jeffreys’ original method. But, like Jeffreys’ original method, it cannot show that the DNA came from a specific person; instead, all it can do is show that the DNA donor and the suspect are related – and a negative test proves innocence. Thus, a DNA test can never prove guilt, only innocence.

Of course, researchers are still trying to pin down the genetic components of disease. If you’d like to help them, then why not join the Personal Genome Project?

September 9 – Hole lotta trouble

Today’s factismal: The ozone hole stretched to cover a city for the first time fourteen years ago.

One of the great successes in pollution control was the 1992 international treaty banning the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) due to their effect on the ozone layer. Following the signing of the treaty, nations were required to change their refrigerators and hairsprays so that they didn’t use CFCs; the only exceptions were for national security. So with the pollution stopped, the problem was solved, right?

2009 Ozone Hole (Image courtesy NASA)

2009 Ozone Hole
(Image courtesy NASA)

Wrong. The problem with pollution is that it doesn’t stop doing harm just because you’ve stopped putting more trash into the atmosphere. You still have to deal with all of the junk that was put into the atmosphere before you stopped. Some environmentalists call this the “teenager’s room problem”: sure, your kid has gone to college and left his room empty – but you still have the ten years of empty soda cans, candy bar wrappers, and dirty laundry piled in the corners that need to be cleaned out before it can be turned into a sewing room. And that’s where we are with CFCs in the atmosphere. We’ve stopped adding them but we still have to wait for the ones in the air to break down and go away. And, until they do, we will have problems.

This year's ozone hole (Image courtesy MACC)

This year’s ozone hole
(Image courtesy MACC)

In 2000 we saw one example of the sort of problem we’ll have; the ozone hole grew to cover an area three times the size of the continental United States. It got so large that it covered all of Antarctica and part of South America, including the city of Punta Arenas. For two days, the residents were exposed to more UV radiation than normal. Though they haven’t reported much in the way of side effects that is because UV damage is a long-term problem (e.g., skin cancer, glaucoma) caused by a short-term exposure. Fortunately, that was the largest that the ozone hole has ever gotten; since then it has shrunken considerably.

Of course, a hole in the ozone layer isn’t the only problem we’ve got. If you’d like to help monitor air quality, then why not join NASA’s Citizens and Remote Sensing Observation Network Air Quality project?